Should Senior Living be making working in the industry harder rather than easier?

By Steve Moran

This may sound kind of weird, but here goes . . .

A couple of days ago I was out early in the morning (before 7 am) walking my dog. As I was walking, I noticed a dark-haired high school girl carrying a backpack full of books, earbuds on looking like she was headed to school (though she was actually walking in the wrong direction).  

The thing that struck me about seeing her was how miserable she looked. I assume it was mostly about being up so early for school. I then got to thinking that over the past year I have seen some research that suggests young people do better in school when they do not have to get up so early. I found myself wondering why — given that research — kids are still being forced to go to school so early in the morning.

Senior Living

My mind then wandered to senior living . . . as it always does. I got to thinking about how we can (and should?) make the work experience better at all levels of senior living team members from line staff to CEOs. (Though I don’t worry so much about the C folks because they are mostly pretty compulsively driven to do what they do and love it.)

Except that . . . here is where it kind of gets weird . . . I found myself thinking that I have known a bunch of high achieving high school students. They not only got up early to go to school, but would gladly get up even earlier to do volunteer work, even when they didn’t need the credit and when the work was not glamorous.  

We know that in many other countries kids are outperforming American kids in all of the hard subjects like math and science. So maybe, the direction is wrong and that schools should be making things harder and not easier.

Maybe a challenging work environment is actually the core of employment motivation. Maybe Senior Living should be making working in the industry harder, not easier.

The Case for Hard

Please don’t get me wrong here. Just making a job difficult or demanding is a terrible recruitment and retention strategy. Yet, as I go to NIC, SMASH, SHINE, AHCA/NCAL, LeadingAge, CALA and Aging2.0, there will be keynote speakers who we will lionize (rightfully so) for doing amazing hard, challenging things.   

They never ever pick speakers who work 4 or 5 hour days, four days a week, and have it easy. Because they don’t accomplish much! Honestly, while that kind of work might — on the surface — sound great, it is not very satisfying.

I find myself thinking that we need to create working conditions that are challenging (hard), but that at the end of the day — when they are exhausted — they know they made a huge difference. They can say to themselves, “That was so cool. I can hardly wait to do it again tomorrow.”  

What It Might Look Like

Here is how it might look in your senior living organization:

  1. You do every single thing you can to minimize the joy killer stuff, like paperwork and documentation.

  2. You and every leader at every level in your organization spend excessive amounts of time storytelling and celebrating changed lives. The little stories are — in a very real sense — more important than the big stories. The big story times just don’t come along that often. Yet, it’s the little stories that add up and make the day-to-day events mean something deeper, more fulfilling. 

  3. You talk about how the work is hard, who is going above and beyond, who is cleaning up pee and poop and why that is so important.

At the end of the day, your team members just might go home thinking to themselves . . .

“I spent an hour cleaning up the stinkiest mess a human ever made . . . but I am changing an elder’s life for the better. I am making a difference in their lives, in their families lives, in my coworkers lives. I am making a difference in my own life.”